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An overview of small satellites in remote sensing

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This article gives a global overview of some aspects of small satellite developments since the launch of Sputnik-1 50 years ago. These developments are offering new opportunities for remote sensing. The earliest satellites were small but, as time went on, the satellites that were flown were developed to serve several different projects and they became larger and more expensive and took a long time to design, build and be launched. One of the extreme examples was Envisat. For these large satellites compromises often had to be made between different objectives and different instruments. A failure of the whole system meant the death of many different projects. The future is likely to see more small satellites, each of which is dedicated to a particular mission objective and carries a single instrument. Through this approach more and more countries around the world are becoming involved in Earth observation from space, not just in using the data from the major established systems but also in constructing their own systems. There were some small, low-cost satellites in the early days, but they were overlooked or considered toys by the space community. The first microsatellites were built by enthusiasts of the amateur radio community and launched in the early 1960s. The invention/introduction of the microprocessor in the 1970s represented a quantum jump for the onboard capabilities of a spacecraft. This technology introduction represented a prime catalyst in the development of microsatellites since it enabled small physical structures in support of sophisticated data handling applications. The engineering of microsatellites, which emerged in the early 1980s, took a radical change of approach from the custom design of traditional spacecraft, namely a design-to-capability scheme to achieve cost reductions by focusing on available, and existing technologies using a general purpose bus and 'off-the-shelf' components and instruments. The new approach of small satellite design was pioneered by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) of Surrey University, UK. SSTL's lead has now been followed by various companies and space agencies throughout the world. A key feature of this work is the development of microsatellite technology transfer programmes, providing partnerships and on-the-job training of engineers and scientists of foreign national organizations in cooperative programmes - in particular to those who were not in a position to start or afford their own space projects - to participate in the development of their own microsatellites. In addition to discussing these developments, this article also covers small satellite classification, small satellite initiatives in the USA, small satellite development in the rest of the world, some aspects of the technology and applications of small satellites, and small satellites developed by universities, particularly the CubeSats programme. Today, small satellites are changing the economics of space. These spacecraft embrace cutting edge Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) technology, permitting novel and less-expensive ways to perform meaningful observation missions, although there are various technical challenges. There are several synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and hyperspectral imaging missions on small satellites in operation and in planning.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt, Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany 2: University of Dundee, Scotland, UK

Publication date: January 1, 2008

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